Sentencing disparities by race, gender, education, and socioeconomic status
are prevalent in the federal criminal justice system. Black defendants are
sentenced to almost five months longer in prison than white defendants with
identical demographic traits, criminal history and offense
characteristics. Male defendants receive over five months longer in prison
compared to similar female defendants, and defendants with lower
educational attainment and income receive significantly longer sentences
than otherwise similar offenders.
These large disparities in federal criminal sentencing prompted calls for
sentencing reform in the early 1970s. In response to concerns that judges
were introducing unwarranted disparities in sentencing, Congress adopted
the United States Sentencing Guidelines under the Sentencing Reform Act
(SRA) of 1984. After almost two decades of mandatory Guidelines
sentencing, the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker, 543
U.S. 220 (2005). As a result, Booker greatly increased the degree of
judicial discretion afforded to judges.
This paper first estimates the impact of increased judicial discretion via
Booker on racial disparities in federal sentencing using comprehensive data
on the universe of defendants sentenced between 1994-2009. Next, I examine
the sources of increasing disparities after Booker by studying how
different types of judges have responded to increased judicial discretion.
Matching three data sources, I construct a dataset of over 400,000 criminal
defendants linked to sentencing judge from fiscal years 2000-2009. Given
that cases are randomly assigned to judges within a district court, any
difference in sentencing practices across judges can be attributable to the
judge differences, rather than case composition. Exploiting the random
assignment of cases to judges in this dataset, I specifically explore the
impact of experience under a mandatory Guidelines regime on sentencing
practices to test the hypothesis that judges appointed after Booker develop
different sentencing practices compared to their colleagues.
I conclude by considering the impact of judicial discretion on other actors
in the criminal justice system. I find evidence that increased judicial
discretion via Booker changes the prosecutorial treatment of statutory
mandatory minimums, which Booker left intact, consistent with prosecutors
attempting to rein in judicial discretion. Future work on the interactions
of actors at various stages in the criminal process is critical to a
thorough exploration of disparities in the federal criminal justice system.
See discussion paper
for initial findings from this research.